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Bush Bows to Senators on Detainees

The White House agrees to new rules banning the most controversial CIA tactics but allowing a secret interrogation program to continue.

September 22, 2006|Julian E. Barnes and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush acceded to dissident Senate Republicans on Thursday, agreeing to new rules for interrogating and prosecuting suspected terrorists that leave intact international treaty protections against torture.

In a major concession to Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Republicans, the administration dropped its efforts to have Congress redefine U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention. The compromise bill in effect bans the most controversial CIA interrogation tactics, including water boarding, a form of simulated drowning, said those involved in the negotiations.

At the same time, the agreement gives Bush the legal protections he said were needed to preserve a secret CIA interrogation program. The compromise bill would allow Bush the latitude to employ interrogation tactics which go beyond legal limits set for the U.S. military.

Both McCain and Bush hailed the agreement, saying their most important priorities had been met.

"There is no doubt that the integrity and letter and spirit of the Geneva Conventions have been preserved," McCain said after hours of closed-door, often tense negotiations.

Bush, campaigning for GOP candidates in Florida, said the agreement would achieve his goal of preserving a critical CIA interrogation program that "will help us crack the terror network and to save American lives."

But many human rights advocates involved in the debate expressed satisfaction that the White House had been forced to drop its demands that Congress redefine U.S. treaty obligations.

"The administration did not achieve its goal of having the Geneva Convention redefined," said Elisa Massimino, the Washington director of Human Rights First. "The agreement makes clear that the president can't downgrade the humane treatment standards of the Geneva Conventions, and that Congress is unwilling to do that."

While at least a partial setback for Bush, the deal heads off a politically embarrassing intra-party showdown in an election year and also paves the way for trials of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The compromise followed weeks of wrenching debate in which Bush's proposal was criticized by leading members of his own party, including McCain and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the legislation would permit aggressive interrogation techniques that will "get us good information" but would "put boundaries around conduct that would not represent American values."

The compromise sets the stage for expected Senate approval next week of legislation authorizing military tribunals to try the suspects at Guantanamo Bay. The House also is expected to take up the bill. The interrogation provisions are part of the military tribunal measure.

Senate GOP leaders and the White House also were moving toward a compromise Thursday on legislation authorizing the president's warrantless domestic surveillance, a sign of the heightened anxiety among Republicans over the need to complete work on national security legislation before recessing next week.

The compromise came together after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) -- worried about time running out -- called administration officials and the dissident GOP senators together.

The tribunal legislation was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down the administration's earlier rules for detaining and prosecuting accused terrorists. Among those who are expected to be put on trial, once the legislation becomes law, are self-proclaimed Sept. 11 planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and 13 other suspected leaders of Al Qaeda who are now at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.

At issue was the meaning of Common Article 3, a provision of the Geneva Convention of 1949. The provision bans torture and cruel treatment and is considered a minimum level of protection for those taken prisoner in armed conflicts. But the Bush administration considers parts of Common Article 3 too vague, including its prohibition on "outrages upon personal dignity."

McCain, a former POW, along with Graham and Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had resisted the administration's efforts to redefine U.S. obligations under the Geneva Convention. They contended it would lead other nations to reinterpret their treaty obligations and put captured Americans at risk.

The compromise lists nine violations of Common Article 3 that are considered war crimes. It bans cruel and inhuman treatment, as McCain wanted. But it does not classify "degrading" treatment as a war crime, a concession by the Senate Republicans to Bush.

Under Thursday's deal, the administration dropped its opposition to making the infliction of "serious mental pain or suffering" a war crime. The compromise also bans shorter-term "non-transitory" suffering.

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